King County health officer: 12s know ‘not to celebrate before we’re in the end zone’

KING COUNTY, Wash. — With an increase in COVID-19 cases in King County and more contagious variants on the rise, health officer Dr. Jeff Duchin with Public Health — Seattle & King County expressed concern Friday that this could be the start of another wave.

“I think there’s a good chance we’re looking at the beginning of a fourth wave,” Duchin said in his weekly briefing. “What I can’t predict is how big it will be and how much damage it will cause.”

After the large fall and winter third wave, the decline seen in new cases stopped in mid-February, Duchin says, and cases have been increasing since early March. Incidence rates are increasing in all age groups, except for those ages 75 and above.

In the older population, COVID cases are declining due to high vaccination coverage, meaning that the oldest, most vulnerable adults are now largely protected against COVID-19. Case rates for those 75 and older have dropped 83% since Feb. 1, 2021, Duchin said, and have remained at the lowest rate among all age groups throughout the month of March.

“This a tremendous testament to the effectiveness of our vaccines,” he said.

Duchin explained the protection in the older age group will help keep the rate of hospitalizations and deaths lower than expected in absence of the vaccine. Instead, the hospitalization burden will shift to younger age groups in the coming weeks, until they too are eligible to be vaccinated.

Any new surge, he says, is likely to impact the younger age groups, who have a lower risk of hospitalization and death than older populations, but can still have serious infections.

“In summary, we’re seeing a clear trend now of rising COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations over the past two weeks,” Duchin said. “At the same time, deaths remain stable and low compared to recent peaks, largely as a result of high rates of vaccination of our older adults.”

Duchin also noted that these increases happened before the county moved into Phase 3 of reopening, but the move forward will only increase activities and opportunities for the virus to spread.

“A few weeks ago, when we entered Phase 2, I said we were skating ahead without knowing how thick the ice was,” he said. “Now, as we enter Phase 3, we’re going to find out just how thick the ice is, and it looks like it’s beginning to crack a bit beneath us under the combined weight of more contagious variants and more activity.”

“Whether we fall through the ice or skate safely around the dangers depends on our behaviors and what we do as a community over the coming weeks as we are challenged by more infectious variant viruses that can cause more serious infections,” he added.

To reverse the increasing trend, Duchin says we need to increase our actions to limit the spread of COVID-19 until more people are vaccinated. That includes wearing well-fitting face masks, limiting activities with unvaccinated people outside of your household, avoiding crowds and crowded indoor spaces, and paying attention to improving ventilation in workplaces, businesses, and homes.

“I want this outbreak to be over — it’s been like a very bad dream. But, unfortunately, it is not a dream and it won’t go away unless we work together to make that happen,” he said.

“We may be close, but this game, this outbreak is not over, and the virus is trying harder than ever to make a comeback,” Duchin said. “In King County, of all people, the 12s should know better than anyone not to celebrate before we’re in the end zone.”

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